Beer Alfresco

There are two seasons in Canada: winter and patio. Or so say some beer ads.

In Edmonton, the patio season is a short and fleeting thing that burns brightly and then is gone. The season’s brevity makes it all the more precious to be savoured and treasured. I sincerely hope you are reading this on a sun-dappled patio. If not, I urge you to resolve this situation forthwith.

Edmontonians embrace patio season at the slightest provocation. Every winter seems longer than the last and, by God, it is almost 9 degrees today and that patio had better be open. My advice for early season patio-goers: if the Oilers are still playing hockey, it is too early; spring has not yet come.

Like hockey, open-air beer is a Canadian staple, but it wasn’t long ago that it was a forbidden act. Indeed, with apologies to Gordon Lightfoot, there was a time in this fair land when the beer did not run — not indoors, not outdoors. Prohibition began in Canada on July 1, 1916 (Happy Canada Day! Not.) and ended in Alberta in 1924.

The prohibitionists lost the battle but in some ways won the war. In the decades following prohibition, the main concern with liquor sales was control. The goal was to make the new legal drinking establishments as unfriendly and inhospitable as possible. Germany has its festive beer halls and gardens, Britain its cozy pubs, and America its friendly neighbourhood taverns. Canada? We gave the world the grim beer parlour, or more accurately “beverage room.” Only draft beer was allowed. No standing. No food. No entertainment. No darts. No advertising. No radio or TV. No dancing, I presume. No fun, certainly. Of course, absolutely verboten was drinking outdoors: someone might see drinkers enjoying themselves!

Like Alberta politics, liquor laws changed slowly. Licensed dining lounges serving mixed drinks were approved in 1958. The drinking age was dropped to 18 from 21 in 1971. By the 1980s, when I went to university, things were loosening up. But it was easy to experience the old days of beer at the classic beer barn, the Strathcona Hotel. During those halcyon college days, my own love affair with alfresco drinking began, reading about Fitzgerald, Hemingway and the rest of the Lost Generation hanging about the open-air terraces of the Paris cafés in the 1920s. But in the Edmonton of the day it was difficult to pretend one was drinking a pression (draft) Kronenbourg at Le Dôme on the Left Bank.

Drinking laws changed as Canada and Alberta changed, as we opened up to the world. For the patio imbibing of today, we owe a tip of the beret to Alberta’s Francophone community. Franco-Albertans have held differing views on alcohol over the years. St. Albert, historically a Francophone community, was none too pleased with prohibition, seeing it as an imposition by their Anglophone neighbours. Founded in 1929, St. Albert’s Bruin Inn was a social hub for the Edmonton area for decades, as St. Albert was exempt from the law which made it illegal for men and women to drink together (only quashed in 1967). My mother-in-law attended the U of A in the early 1950s and remembers well the trips out to the Bruin Inn for a tipple or two.

But it may be Ernst Eder, a French émigré from Alsace, who we have to thank for liberalized outdoor drinking laws. Eder came to Edmonton in 1974 and founded La Bohème restaurant and B&B. Never a fan of red tape, Eder says that in the late 1980s liquor inspectors threatened to throw him in jail for serving beer on his outdoor patio. He protested and eventually received permission, opening the way for alfresco quaffing throughout Alberta.

True story? Isn’t it pretty to think so? Regardless, next time you are enjoying a cold beer on an Edmonton patio, why not raise your glass to Ernst in thanks. Salut!

A pick of five great local patios and a beer to enjoy on them.

Fairmont Hotel Macdonald – Mill St. Organic Lager

The Fairmont to visitors, the Mac to locals, the grand patio off the Confederation Lounge might be the best in the city with its spectacular view of the river valley. On tap is Toronto brewer Mill St’s quite quaffable Organic Lager.

Sugarbowl – Unibroue Blanche de Chambly

The Sugarbowl is a jewel, with a charming patio facing a tree-lined Garneau street, near the University of Alberta. The Sugarbowl has one of the best beer selections in the city including Unibroue’s tasty witbier, Blanche de Chambly.

Black Dog Freehouse – Big Rock Gopher Lager

Never mind the youthful hipsters, just grab a beer and head upstairs to the rooftop patio — one of Edmonton’s few. From the roof you have a great view of the dynamic street-life of Whyte Avenue. Sit back and enjoy the show with Big Rock’s latest brew: a malty-sweet, summer-friendly lager.

Original Joe’s Glenora – Wild Rose Velvet Fog

OJ’s has earned the respect of beer geeks for their support of Alberta craft beer. Take a seat on the amiable patio and enjoy Calgary’s Wild Rose brewing’s take on wheat beer: the unfiltered, golden Velvet Fog.

Urban Diner Downtown – McAuslan St. Ambroise Framboise

The High Street/124th St area is a hot-spot for great patios, with Café de Ville, the Manor Café and the Urban Diner leading the way. The Diner wins for me with their menu of upscale diner fare and their interesting beer list. Hit their leafy backyard patio with a tasty raspberry seasonal from Montreal’s award-winning McAuslan brewing.

Peter Bailey is an Edmonton-area librarian wearing an old man hat at the patio table next to you.